E15 ethanol debate reaches tipping point in Congress

Source: By Ben Wolfgang, Washington Examiner • Posted: Friday, June 16, 2017

For gasoline retailers, it’s an annual tradition: Each summer, federal law requires them to swap out the higher-blend ethanol fuel E15 from their pumps to comply with EPA regulations that limit ground-level ozone.

But the debate over whether E15 — gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol, an increasingly popular alternative to the common E10 fuel at gas stations nationwide — should be available year-round has reached a tipping point, and a bipartisan coalition of senators is pushing legislation to lift the federal restrictions that ethanol proponents say are outdated, unnecessary, and actually result in more pollution, not less.

The bill would waive rules that prevent E15, now available in 29 states, from being sold between June and September, a regulatory structure initially put in place to curb ozone that causes increased levels of smog during hot summer months. The battle has split both political parties and pits environmentalists, small-engine makers and others against the ethanol sector and its backers in Congress.

Ethanol proponents argue that the regulations are misguided, particularly in light of technological advances that have made E15 as clean-burning as its E10 counterpart.

They also contend that the current summer regulations greatly restrict the biofuels industry, mainly because some gasoline retailers choose not to sell E15 at all rather than carry it for nine months and remove it for the other three.

“Ongoing biofuel industry growth — particularly in advanced biofuels — will depend on increased synchronization between the broader policy goal of increased biofuel use and the gasoline/motor fuel regulations that restrict or facilitate those outcomes,” Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council, said in testimony to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee at a hearing Wednesday morning.

That panel will soon consider legislation that will allow E15 to be sold year-round. The bill has co-sponsors from both parties, and is chiefly backed by senators in Midwestern states that have greatly benefited from the explosion of the domestic corn ethanol industry.

But the committee chairman, Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, said he opposes the bill.

“In Wyoming, folks want fuel with less, not more, ethanol,” he said at the hearing. “They have seen what ethanol does to small engines and boat engines. They worry what fuel with more ethanol will do to their car engines, and who will be stuck paying the bill.”

Indeed, leading opponents of the measure argue that year-round E15 sales will result in “misfueling” by customers who put the fuel in cars, small engines, and other products that can’t handle such a high level of ethanol.

“It’s going to take a concerted effort with industry and government to educate the public on the risks of misfueling with ethanol,” said Todd Teske, president of Briggs & Stratton, a leading small engine manufacturer.

Supporters of E15 sales in the retail sector say the annual change actually leads to more misfueling, not less, since customers may be used to getting the fuel at a particular gas station and don’t realize it’s no longer available. They also argue the yearly switch is increasingly expensive.

“In addition to lost sales during the summer, relabeling will cost retailers roughly $2 million this year and possibly $5 million next year,” said Mike Lorenz, executive vice president of Sheetz, a top convenience store chain.

In the end, there seem to be few clear answers, as research is mixed on whether E15 leads to more pollution and whether its year-round availability will lead to more engine failures.

“We’ve heard that these fuels create a carbon sink and we’ve heard they create more global-warming gases,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon Democrat. “We’ve heard they damage engines, we’ve heard they don’t damage engines. We’ve heard there’s a misfueling problem and we’ve heard there’s no misfueling problem.”